Michael Ondaatje and the ‘word thing’


When I stumble upon words or phrases that can be attributed to great and famous spirits and they resonate with a passion deep inside of me, I feel a trickle of excitement and pleasure tickling my spine. Oh, especially when they actually kind of summarise or accurately echo that passion!

Sri Lankan born author Michael Ondaatje, whose profound and poignant novel The English Patient earned him the 1992 Booker Prize, has his character who is throughout the narrative only presumed by the reader to be Almásy, express thoughts on the power and integrity of words – while they are most likely Ondaatje’s own.

Referring to the characters of Geoffrey Clifton and his wife Katharine, Almásy says: “The words of her husband in praise of her meant nothing. But I am a man whose life in many ways, even as an explorer, has been governed by words. By rumours and legends. Charted things. Shards written down. The tact of words. In the desert to repeat something would be to fling more water into the earth. Here nuance took you a hundred miles.”

Katharine subsequently asks Almásy for “That book you look at in the evenings?”

“Herodotus. Ahh. You want that?”

Some days later she takes out The Histories after the evening meal and reads out loud to the men the story of Candaules and his queen. A piece that Almásy had always skimmed over, but now listens to.

“…the words she spoke across the fire…”

He then tells the reader (or Hana): “This is a story of how I fell in love with a woman, who read me a specific story from Herodotus. I heard the words she spoke across the fire…” And a few paragraphs further – “She stopped reading and looked up. Out of the quicksand. She was evolving. So power changed hands. Meanwhile, with the help of an anecdote, I fell in love.

“Words, Caravaggio. They have a power.”

Much later on in the novel, when there is an inevitable break-down in his relationship with Katharine, he (the narrator at that stage) skilfully uses words to imply a deep and profound understanding of her that she is sadly not aware of: “She had always wanted words, she loved them, grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape. Whereas I thought words bent emotions like sticks in water.”

Perhaps this following excerpt from the review of the novel by Pico Iyer of Time best describes the allure and intrigue of The English Patient:

“A magic carpet of a novel that soars across worlds and times… As rare and spellbinding a net of dreams as any that has ermerged in recent years.”

I agree.

I salute Michael Ondaatje’s captivating celebration of words.

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